“My grandfather was a healer and my father also knew how to work with plants,” said Hernán Saavedra Gonzáles, in a calm, measured voice. Soon after, he blew the smoke of a taro cigarette, a type of medicinal tobacco, into a cup filled with a dark liquid that looked very much like tea.
Hernán and his wife, Jesús Arce Quinteros are a couple of healers who, despite many difficulties, struggle to maintain an ayahuasca clinic in Tarapoto, in the state of San Martín, in the Peruvian Amazon jungle.
Jesusthe woman healer
Like Hernán, Jesús comes from a lineage of healers, practitioners of traditional medicine from the Peruvian jungle. But she’s an outlier on the city’s ayahuasca circuit. She is one of the few female healers, or perhaps the only one, in Tarapoto.
Jesús is 38 years old, has been drinking ayahuasca for 20 years, and has worked as a healer for 15 years. Despite the time in activity, she guarantees that she continues to be surprised along the way. “Each ceremony is a new learning experience, I discover and learn more.”
Jesús and her husband also cultivate, in an area of two hectares, a botanical garden, with a huge variety of medicinal plants. According to the couple, many of them are at risk of extinction due to deforestation and mining operations in the Peruvian Amazon rainforest.
In general, healers work using chants and various plants. The main one is ayahuasca, a psychoactive drink made from the macerated mixture of a vine and leaves. Used for thousands of years by indigenous Amazonian peoples, in Peru it has been recognized as a cultural heritage of the country since 2008.
In Brazil, in addition to indigenous communities, religious groups such as Santo Daime and União do Vegetal also use the drink in their cults. These practices are protected by a 2010 regulation by Conad (National Drug Policy Council). For more than a decade, research has investigated the therapeutic potential of ayahuasca for mental disorders such as depression, anxiety and addictions.
Journey of a Healer
A huge rooster crowed, dogs barked, cats had a disagreement running around the yard and, from afar, but attentive, a friendly agouti (forest rodent, which in Peru is better known as añuje), from time to time observed the conversation, while nibbling something he was holding with both paws, making a reluctant sound.
“I was interested in traditional medicine from a very young age and at that time I started looking for ‘maestros’ [professores] in many indigenous communities to deepen the knowledge that I had already begun to obtain with my grandfather and my father”, continues Hernán about the beginning of his journey as a healer.
The healer, or plant doctor, as people who work with Amazonian medicine in Peru are also called, says he started drinking ayahuasca at the age of 20. Today he is 61. “In the first three sessions I didn’t feel anything, in the fourth I had a very deep experience, I saw my childhood traumas and the path I should take to heal myself and treat other people.”
But, Hernán reiterates that his greatest teacher was his grandfather. He healed people in the small town of Tarapoto and was also called upon in villages around the region.
“At that time there was no car here, sometimes he would travel several days on horseback through the woods until he reached a community”. There was also no money, everything was based on exchange, so usually the healer grandfather would return with food for the family.
“Circus of Clowns”
Tarapoto is very different from the city where Hernán lived in his childhood. Since the 1990s, the municipality has become one of the main destinations for unique tourism, known as shamanic or psychedelic. According to Hernán, ayahuasca centers and resorts, many under the command of foreigners, are turning tradition into a profitable business.
“It turned into a clown circus”, comments Hernan, annoyed. Clowns are healers themselves, exploited by businessmen. A movement that, according to him, is making genuine Amazonian medicine disappear.
Outside this circuit, the couple resists. For over 20 years, Hernán and Jesús have maintained the Tangaranas Center where they work with a multitude of medicinal plants, such as ayahuasca, ajosacha, chuchuhuasi and sanango and many others. An ancient tradition that they both inherited from their ancestors and that they visibly uphold with love and respect.
It can be seen that they are not even part of the growing tourist movement around ayahuasca. The house they live in is very simple and they don’t even own a car. They travel between the house and the place where they work in a motorbike – in fact, the main means of transport in the region.
“We live with our two children, two dogs, two cats, several chickens, a rabbit, six turtles and a parrot that thinks it’s a rooster”, explains Hernán. He then explains that the parrot is madly in love with one of the chickens.
Weakness in muscles and insomnia
Although they still do not have a website to promote their work, only a page on social networks, they receive people from all over the world: the United States, Russia, France, Germany, China, Korea, Portugal, Australia, Japan, among others. More than 1,000 people have already passed through the center installed in a region of dense forest, on the banks of the Mayu River.
Among them, the American Benjamin Blackwell, who says he went to Tarapoto in search of answers for his life, after being diagnosed with an incurable disease, fibromyalgia, a syndrome that causes pain throughout the body.
“I felt a lot of weakness in the muscles and suffered from insomnia”, says the American. According to him, the medicines he was taking caused many side effects and did not solve the problem.
He went on a month-long diet with Hernán and Jesús. “I don’t feel any more pain,” says Blackwell. “And my stress level is pretty close to zero,” he adds. “I feel at peace with my body, my mind and my soul.”
But the work at the Tangaranas Center is maintained with a lot of effort and dedication. “We need more hands and minds to help,” says Hernán. Sometimes patients do not even pay for the treatment they receive.
The exchange system that Hernán’s grandfather practiced continues to apply at Centro Tangaranas. During the visit of the report, two foreigners were hospitalized at the place, but they paid for the service with work.
Despite not having the necessary resources, the couple of healers now dream of setting up a school to teach traditional Amazonian medicine and thus keep knowledge alive.
The fear that ancestral Amazonian medicine will disappear from the map is not an exaggeration of the couple of healers. “The new generations no longer want to follow the tradition out of fear”, laments Hernán. And this is also not without reason.
Many older leaders and healers are persecuted and even murdered. The causes are many. From conflicts related to the exploitation of land and economic interests to prejudice on the part of evangelical religious who consider Amazonian healers to be something of the devil.
One of the most tragic moments occurred in 2011, in the district of balsapuertoAlto Amazonas province, Loreto state: 14 healers were killed in an ambush.
“The healers were brutally killed with machetesaxes, stoned, with rifle shots and then their bodies were thrown into rivers in the region where they were devoured by piranhas,” said Peruvian journalist and writer Roger Rumrillresearcher of the Amazon, with several books published on the subject.
No one was convicted of the killings, according to pizza Inuma, President of Feconach (Federation of Indigenous Communities Chayawites), which represents the people chayahuita, shayabit, jebero, balsapuertino, shiwila, shawis, between others. According to him, the dead healers were mainly shawis.
“Behind the death of healers, there are several causes, including economic interests, they don’t want healers because their vegetable recipes replace drugs from pharmacies,” suggests Inuma. the president of Feconach believes there is a plan to eradicate healers and sorcerers
In 2018, one of the oldest leaders of the ethnic group shipibo-conibothe healer and activist olivia Arevalo Lomas, was also murdered by two men on a motorcycle. A Canadian tourist named as a suspect was lynched by people from the Victoria community gracein ucayaliin the Peruvian Amazon, where she lived.
But other hypotheses were also under investigation by local authorities, as the healer’s death followed other unsolved murders of indigenous activists who faced threats because of their efforts to keep illegal loggers and palm oil producers off their land.
*This report was supported by the Amazon Rainforest Journalism Fund of the Pulitzer Center and the Fund for Research and New Narratives on Drugs of the Gabo Foundation and Open Society Foundations.